Years of American Hostility to Russia Sparked Crimea Crisis Former U.S. Ambassador Says
The standoff over Ukraine and the fate of Crimea has sparked the worst East-West crisis since the end of the Cold War. The U.S. has imposed sanctions on top Russian officials while announcing new military exercises in Baltic states. Meanwhile in Moscow, the Russian government says it is considering changing its stance on Iran’s nuclear talks in response to newly imposed U.S. sanctions. As tensions rise, we are joined by Jack Matlock, who served as the last U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union. Matlock argues that Russian President Vladimir Putin is acting in response to years of perceived hostility from the U.S., from the eastward expansion of NATO to the bombing of Serbia to the expansion of American military bases in eastern Europe.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
Juan González: The Ukrainian government has announced plans to abandon its military bases in Crimea and evacuate its forces following Russia’s decision to annex the region. Earlier today, Russian forces reportedly released the commander of the Ukrainian Navy, who has been seized in his own headquarters in Crimea. At the United Nations, ambassadors sparred over the situation in Crimea. Yuriy Sergeyev is the Ukrainian ambassador to the U.N.
Yuriy Sergeyev: The declaration of independence by the Crimean Republic is a direct consequence of the application of the use of force and threats against Ukraine by the Russian Federation, and, in view of Russian nuclear power status, has a particularly dangerous character for Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity, as well as for international peace and security in general. Accordingly, I assert that on the basis of customary norms and international law, that the international community is obliged not to recognize Crimea as a subject of international law or any situation, treaty or agreement that may be arise or be achieved by this territory.
JG: Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, defended Moscow’s move to annex Crimea.
Vitaly Churkin: [translated] A historic injustice has been righted, which resulted from the arbitrary actions of the leader of the U.S.S.R. at the time, Nikita Khrushchev, who, with the stroke of a pen in 1954, in violation of the constitutional norms, transferred the Russian region of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, which was part of the same state then. And he did this without informing the population of Crimea and, of course, without their consent. And nobody cared about the views of the Crimeans.
Amy Goodman: Meanwhile, on Wednesday, the U.S. Navy warship, the Truxtun, a U.S. guided-missile destroyer, conducted a one-day military exercise in the Black Sea with the Bulgarian and Romanian navies. And Vice President Joe Biden has been meeting this week with the heads of states of Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, promising Washington would protect them from any Russian aggression. On Wednesday, President Obama addressed the crisis during an interview with NBC 7 San Diego.
President Barack Obama: We are not going to be getting into a military excursion in Ukraine. What we are going to do is mobilize all of our diplomatic resources to make sure that we’ve got a strong international coalition that sends a clear message, which is: The Ukraine should decide their own destiny. Russia, right now, is violating international law and the sovereignty of another country. You know, might doesn’t make right. And, you know, we are going to continue to ratchet up the pressure on Russia as it continues down its current course.
AG: To talk more about the growing crisis in Ukraine, we’re joined by Ambassador Jack Matlock. He served as U.S. ambassador to Moscow from 1987 to 1991. He’s the author of several books, including "Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended." He recently wrote a column for The Washington Post headlined "The U.S. Has Treated Russia Like a Loser Since the End of the Cold War."
Ambassador Matlock, welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about the situation right now, what has just taken place, Ukraine now pulling out of Crimea.
Jack Matlock Jr.: Well, I think that what we have seen is a reaction, in many respects, to a long history of what the Russian government, the Russian president and many of the Russian people — most of them — feel has been a pattern of American activity that has been hostile to Russia and has simply disregarded their national interests. They feel that having thrown off communism, having dispensed with the Soviet Empire, that the U.S. systematically, from the time it started expanding NATO to the east, without them, and then using NATO to carry out what they consider offensive actions about an — against another country — in this case, Serbia — a country which had not attacked any NATO member, and then detached territory from it — this is very relevant now to what we’re seeing happening in Crimea — and then continued to place bases in these countries, to move closer and closer to borders, and then to talk of taking Ukraine, most of whose people didn’t want to be a member of NATO, into NATO, and Georgia. Now, this began an intrusion into an area which the Russians are very sensitive. Now, how would Americans feel if some Russian or Chinese or even West European started putting bases in Mexico or in the Caribbean, or trying to form governments that were hostile to us? You know, we saw how we virtually went ballistic over Cuba. And I think that we have not been very attentive to what it takes to have a harmonious relationship with Russia.
JG: Well, Ambassador Matlock, Americans often look at these crises in isolation, and some of the press coverage deals with them that way. But from your perspective, you argued that we should see the continuum of events that have happened from the Russian point of view — for instance, the Orange Revolution, the pronouncements of some of our leaders several years back, the crisis in Georgia a few years ago, and how the Russians are seeing the original good feeling that most Russians had toward the United States after the collapse of the Soviet Union compared to now.
JMJ: Yes, that’s absolutely true. You see, in the Orange Revolution in Kiev, foreigners, including Americans, were very active in organizing people and inspiring them. Now, you know, I have to ask Americans: How would Occupy Wall Street have looked if you had foreigners out there leading them? Do you think that would have helped them get their point across? I don’t think so. And I think we have to understand that when we start directly interfering, particularly our government officials, in the internal makeup of other governments, we’re really asking for trouble.
And, you know, we were pretty careful not to do that in my day. And I recall, for example, when I was being consulted by the newly elected leaders of what was still Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania. They were still in the Soviet Union, and they would come to us. We were, of course, sympathetic to their independence; we had never even recognized that they were legally part of the Soviet Union. But I had to tell them, "Keep it peaceful. If you are suppressed, there’s nothing we can do about it. We cannot come and help you. We’re not going to start a nuclear war." Well, they kept it peaceful, despite provocations.
Now, what have we been telling the Ukrainians, the Georgians — at least some of us, officials? "Just hold on. You can join NATO, and that will solve your problems for you." You know, and yet, it is that very prospect, that the United States and its European allies were trying to surround Russia with hostile bases, that has raised the emotional temperature of all these things. And that was a huge mistake. As George Kennan wrote back in the ’90s when this question came up, the decision to expand NATO the way it was done was one of the most fateful and bad decisions of the late 20th century.
AG: I wanted to go to Vice President Joe Biden, who criticized Russia recently during his trip to Lithuania Wednesday.
Vice President Joe Biden: I want to make it clear: We stand resolutely with our Baltic allies in support of Ukrainian people and against Russian aggression. As long as Russia continues on this dark path, they will face increasing political and economic isolation. There are those who say that this action shows the old rules still apply. But Russia cannot escape the fact that the world is changing and rejecting outright their behavior.
AG: And in a speech Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin blasted what he called Western hypocrisy on Crimea, saying that the U.S. selectively applies international law according to its political interests.
President Vladimir Putin: [translated] Our Western partners, headed by the United States of America, prefer in their practical policy to be guided not by international law, but by the right of the strong. They started to believe that they have been chosen and they are unique, that they are allowed to decide the fate of the world, that only they could always be right. They do whatever they want
AG: Ambassador Jack Matlock, if you could respond to both Biden and Putin?
JMJ: Well, I think that this rhetoric on both sides is being very unhelpful. The fact is, Russia now has returned Crimea to Russia. It has been, most of its recent history, in the last couple of centuries, been Russian. The majority of the people are Russian. They clearly would prefer to be in Russia. And the bottom line is, we can argue 'til doomsday over who did what and why and who was the legal and who was not — I'm sure historians generations from now will still be arguing it — but the fact is, Russia now is not going to give up Crimea. The fact also is, if you really look at it dispassionately, Ukraine is better off without Crimea, because Ukraine is divided enough as it is. Their big problem is internal, in putting together disparate people who have been put together in that country. The distraction of Crimea, where most of the people did not want to be in Ukraine and ended up in Ukraine as a result of really almost a bureaucratic whim, is — was, I think, a real liability for Ukraine.
Now, the — we should be concentrating now on how we put Ukraine back together — not we, but the Ukrainians, with the help of the Europeans, with the help of the Russians, and with at least a benign view from the United States. Now, the American president and vice president directly challenging the Russian president and threatening them with isolation is going to bring the opposite effect. All of this has actually increased President Putin’s popularity among Russians. Now, you know, most politicians, they like to do things that make them more popular at home. And, you know, the idea that we are acting, you know, contrary to what Russians would consider their very natural interests — that is, in bringing an area which had been Russian and traditionally Russian for a long time back into Russia — they look at that as a good thing. It’s going to be very costly to Russia, they’re going to find out, in many ways. But to continue all of this rhetoric, I would ask, well, how is it going to end? What is your objective? Because it isn’t going to free up Crimea again or give it back to Ukraine.
I think it would be most helpful to encourage the Ukrainians to form a united government that can begin reforms. The proposals before, both by the EU and by Russia, would not have solved their problems. And they are not going to solve the problems by taking a government that basically represents one half of the country and making it work on the whole country. And all of this interference, both by Russia and by the West, including the United States, has tended to split Ukraine. Now, that is the big issue there. And we need to turn our attention more to it. And I just hope everyone can calm down and look at realities and stop trying to start sort of a new Cold War over this. As compared to the issues of the Cold War, this is quite minor. It has many of the characteristics of a family dispute. And when outsiders get into a family dispute, they’re usually not very helpful.
JG: Well, Ambassador Matlock, what would you, if you were counseling the president, urge him to do at this stage? Because obviously there are these pretty weak sanctions that have so far been announced. What would your advice be?
JMJ: Well, I think, first of all, we should start keeping our voice down and sort of let things work out. You know, to ship in military equipment and so on is just going to be a further provocation. Obviously, this is not something that’s going to be solved by military confrontations. So, I think if we can find a way to speak less in public, to use more quiet diplomacy — and right now, frankly, the relationships between our presidents are so poisonous, they really should have representatives who can quietly go and, you know, work with counterparts elsewhere.
But fundamentally, it’s going to be the Ukrainians who have to put their society back together. It is seriously broken now. And it seems to me they could take a leaf from the Finns, who have been very successful ever since World War II in putting together a country with both Finns and Swedes, by treating them equally, by being very respectful and careful about their relations with Russia, never getting into — anymore into military struggles or allowing foreign bases on their land. And they’ve been extremely successful. Why can’t the Ukrainians follow a policy of that sort? I think, for them, it would work, too. But first, they have to find a way to unite the disparate elements in Ukraine; otherwise, these pressures from Russia, on the one hand, and the West, on the other, is going to simply tear them apart. Now —
AG: Ambassador, on Wednesday —
JMJ: — in the final analysis, if the —
AG: On Wednesday, the head of Ukraine’s First National TV was attacked in his office by members of the far-right Svoboda party, including at least one member of Parliament who serves on the parliamentary committee on freedom of speech. The attackers accused the station of working for the Russian authorities, after it aired a live broadcast of the signing of the agreement between President Putin and the de facto Crimean authorities. In a video posted online, the attackers are seen forcing the head of the channel to write a resignation letter. Heather McGill of Amnesty International condemned the attack, saying, quote, "The acting Ukrainian authorities must waste no time in demonstrating that basic human rights are protected in Ukraine and that nobody will face discrimination because of their political views or ethnic origin." Ambassador Matlock, can you talk about this attack and the role of these far-right-wing parties in the new Ukrainian government?
JMJ: Well, I’m not intimately informed about all of the details, but — and I would say that I think Russian media have exaggerated that right-wing threat. On the other hand, those who have ignored it, I think, are making a big mistake. We do have to understand that a significant part of the violence at the Maidan, the demonstrations in Kiev, were done by these extreme right-wing, sort of neo-fascist groups. And they do — some of their leaders do occupy prominent positions in the security forces of the new government. And I think — I think the Russians and others are quite legitimately concerned about that. Therefore, you know, many of these things are not nearly as black and white, when we begin to look at them, as is implied in much of the rhetoric that we’re hearing. And I do think that everybody needs now to take a quiet breath to really look at where we are and to see if we can’t find ways, by keeping our voices down, to help the Ukrainians in present-day Ukraine to get to a road to greater unity and reform that will make them a viable state.
AG: Jack Matlock, we want to thank —
JMJ: And I would argue that —
AG: We want to —
JMJ: — they are better off without Crimea.
AG: I want to thank you very much for being with us. Ambassador Matlock served as the U.S. ambassador —
JMJ: Thank you.
AG: — to Moscow from 1987 to 1991 under both President Reagan and President George H.W. Bush, and he’s the author of a number of books, including "Superpower Illusions" and "Autopsy on an Empire: The American Ambassador’s Account of the Collapse of the Soviet Union," as well as "Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended."